I preached the following sermon one week after the tragic events in Las Vegas, in which a gunman killed at least 58 people. How do we make sense of this kind of evil and suffering light of our Christian faith? Jesus shows us how.
Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-9
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A couple of days ago, Gary Chitwood nearly electrocuted himself—through no fault of his own—so what I’m about to say may hit too close to home for him. I don’t mean to be insensitive.
But back in the early-’60s, a psychologist from Yale named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments involving shock treatment—or at least that’s what his test subjects thought. Back then, the world was still recovering from the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and the purpose of Milgram’s experiment was to see just what kind of person would commit the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany—what kind of person would participate in genocide—and under what circumstances.
So, in this experiment, Milgram told his test subjects that he was conducting an experiment related to learning. A “student” was in the other room, strapped to a chair, with electrodes attached to him. The test subjects, meanwhile, were told that they were to be the “teacher.” The person in the other room was asked specific questions, and every time he got an answer wrong, the so-called “teacher,” the test subject, was supposed to administer a shock to the person. The test subject had in front of him a shock generator with thirty switches labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts—with words ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger—Severe Shock.” The 450V switch was simply labeled “XXX.”
You get the picture? Every time the “student” in the next room got an answer wrong, Milgram, dressed in a white lab coat and looking like an authority figure, would tell the teacher to administer a shock—and each time the “student” got the answer wrong the voltages went up and up and up. As the teacher administered the shocks, he heard screams of agony and loud protesting from the next room every time he flipped a switch. Until the screaming stopped, and there was only silence. In spite of this, the vast majority of the test subjects—between 65 and 85 percent in different studies conducted over the years—were willing to administer the highest levels of shock—to the point of rendering the student in the next room unconscious… or worse. At least as far as the “teacher” knew.
You’ve probably already guessed that the “student” in the next room wasn’t really experiencing shock; he was really a paid actor who wasn’t harmed in any way. But the results shocked the world; because the implications of the study were clear: There’s a killer within each one of us. If these normal, average, middle-American people were willing to electrocute someone—just because a person in authority tells them to—what’s stopping them from participating in genocide?
All of us have the capacity to do great evil. And at least apart from God’s grace, we do. Often.
Frankly, as Christians, the results of Milgram’s experiment shouldn’t surprise us: We should know ourselves! All of us Christians, when we first came to trust in Christ as our Savior and Lord confessed to God and the world something like these words: “Father, I, like everyone else who’s ever lived—with one important exception—am a sinner. Your Word says, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ Father, I confess that is me. I confess I am among those sinners. I deserve the wages of my sin, which is physical and spiritual death. I deserve your judgment. I deserve your wrath. I deserve the hell that you have prepared for Satan and his minions before the foundation of the world.”
This is the first half of the gospel. It’s why God sent his Son Jesus to begin with!
Some of you will remember, back in the ’80s, there was a bestselling book by a rabbi named Harold Kushner entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The title is almost hypothetical. As one theologian put it, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, that only happened once, and he volunteered.”
There are no good people besides Christ. As Jesus himself said when the Rich Young Ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Of course Jesus is God, therefore he was good, but this young man didn’t know that Jesus was God. No one besides Jesus has ever been good.
A more relevant book would be called When Bad Things Happen to Bad People, because that describes who we human beings are, apart from God’s grace!
I emphasize this point because, if we don’t understand this fact about ourselves, we simply can’t understand Jesus’ seemingly harsh and unsentimental response to the two tragedies mentioned in today’s scripture. To understand what’s happening here, let’s look at what Jesus has just been teaching in chapter 12, just before today’s scripture: He’s talking about our impending death and our urgent need to be ready to face God’s judgment. You need to do whatever you can, he says, to be ready when death and judgment come. Or, if the Second Coming happens first, you need to be ready for that. Many people, Jesus warns, will not be ready. Don’t be like them, he says.
So it’s in this context that someone brings Jesus the news about a tragic and evil event that has recently taken place. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ruled over Palestine, massacred some Galileans who had recently come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple. They were there to worship—just like we’re worshiping today. And Pilate brutally killed them. Maybe the people who brought Jesus this news imagined that these Jewish worshipers were an example of people who were not ready to face God in judgment; maybe they were such big sinners that God was using Pilate’s actions to punish and judge them for their sins. Maybe that’s why they died in this terrible manner. So when Jesus asks, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” he expects them to answer, “Yes, we do think they were worse sinners than we are. That’s why they were suffered in this way.”
Jesus, of course, denies this. But listen to how he denies it. He doesn’t deny for a moment that the victims of this tragedy are sinners who deserve death, who God’s judgment, who deserve God’s wrath. They’re not innocent, he implies. But he also affirms that the ones who brought him the news—indeed everyone within earshot of Jesus—was equally a sinner who deserves death, God’s judgment, and God’s wrath! “No. These victims were not worse sinners than you, and unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
I thought of this scripture this week in light of events in Las Vegas. I thought of it because the evil tragedy caused by Pilate is nearly identical to the evil tragedy caused by Stephen Paddock. Sure, the murder weapon was different. Swords instead of guns. The number of the victims was likely different—whether less or more, we don’t know; but Pilate certainly wouldn’t lose sleep about killing 58 people. That’s just a day at the office for him. And of course, events like what happened in Las Vegas happen every week somewhere in the world. It’s just that we Americans are usually insulated from that kind of violence.
But when they do happen near us, our Lord has a message that he urgently wants us to hear: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Please note: Jesus is not speaking these words to the grieving families of Pilate’s victims. We see, in John chapter 11, how Jesus comforts the family of his friend Lazarus when Lazarus dies; we see that Jesus weeps for his friend—even though Jesus knows that he’s going to bring him back to life. Jesus is still so overcome by grief that he breaks down in tears. No one is more compassionate than Jesus! But Jesus wasn’t preaching to family and friends of Pilate’s victims. He would have likely chosen different words for them. Likewise, I’m not preaching these words to the friends and families of Stephen Paddock’s many victims.
In fact, you and I are very much like the audience whom Jesus is speaking to in today’s scripture. Like them, we’ve heard about a terrible, unspeakably evil tragedy that happened not so far away; and we’re angry and afraid. We’re worried about our own safety and security. We’re wondering what we can do to protect ourselves, so that it won’t happen to us. In fact, in Luke 13, Jesus and his disciples, and probably many others in the crowd who are hearing Jesus speak these words are on their way to Jerusalem. If Pilate could kill these Jews from Galilee—perhaps suspecting them of being revolutionaries or insurrectionists who wanted to overthrow Rome—well what would he think of this Jewish Messiah from Galilee and his followers? What if Pilate did to these Galileans what he did these other Galileans? I’m sure that Jesus’ followers were thinking, “What if the same thing happens to us?” The people in Jesus’ audience felt insecure, unsafe, vulnerable. They were afraid of dying.
In the same way, many of us this past week have asked ourselves, “Am I so different from those victims in Las Vegas? Is my family so different from them? Is my wife, my husband, my son, my daughter, my father, my mother so different from these wives, husbands, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers who were viciously murdered by Stephen Paddock last Sunday night?” I go to concerts, after all. I’ve been to music festivals. I also go to ballgames and other public events. I’m often surrounded by towers and high-rises. Who’s to say there’s not another Stephen Paddock out there who wants to kill for no reason? What terrifying freedom we human beings have to cause great pain and suffering! We’re so vulnerable. We’re so insecure. We’re so unsafe. And there’s not much any one of us can do about it.”
And Jesus’ word to us today, in light of our terrifying human freedom to sin and cause great evil, is not a comforting one; it’s not a reassuring one; it’s not designed to make us feel better. It’s definitely not what we want to hear. Yet it’s obviously what Jesus thinks we need to hear it: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
What does this mean? Jesus doesn’t mean that unless they repent, they can expect to be murdered by Pilate. For one thing, Jesus points to another tragedy in the news—a natural disaster, rather than a human-caused disaster: a large tower had recently fallen on top of 18 people and crushed them to death. Out of blue. Just a freak accident. You can’t die twice—once by being murdered at the hands of Pilate and a second time by having a tower fall on you. So Jesus doesn’t mean literally the same thing will happen to them. Nor is he saying that if they do end up repenting, they’ll avoid dying. Because everyone dies, whether we repent or not.
No, when he uses the word “perish,” he’s not really talking about natural death at all. He knows that everyone in that crowd, whether they repent or not, will some day die—either from natural causes, or possibly through some violent act, or even through some freakish accident. All of those kinds of deaths are possible for anyone whether they repent or not.
No, Jesus is talking about a different kind of perishing: It’s the perishing that the Bible’s most famous verse talks about: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It’s the same kind of perishing that Paul mentions, for example, in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
“Perishing,” in this context, is the opposite of “having eternal life,” of “being saved.” To perish means to be judged for our sins, to experience God’s wrath, to go to hell. That’s what each one of us—apart from the atoning work of Christ on the cross—deserves right now because of our sins!
Honestly, every time there’s a tragic national tragedy like Las Vegas, some people will use that as an excuse to shake their fist at God and say, “How could you let this happen? How could you let these people die like this?” But this question gets it exactly backwards: The question is not “How could a loving God let these people die,” the question is “How could a just God let the rest of us sinners continue to live? How could a just God allow us sinners to live day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, in open rebellion against him and his loving rule?” When we hear about someone committing treason against the United States, many of us say, “They ought to still be brought before a firing squad and shot!” We heard that kind of thing about Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and is suspected of being a traitor. “He should be shot!” some say. But what about us? Who do we think we are? When we hear about a tragedy like Las Vegas, why not fall on our knees and thank God that he has let us live for another day—because none of us deserves this life! How merciful God must be—that he keeps on giving us one opportunity after another to repent. Yet most of the time, most people, in most parts of the world, say no.
We are like that fig tree in the short parable that Jesus tells in verses 6 through 8. The owner of the vineyard has waited patiently for the tree to bear fruit for years, but it hasn’t. And he’s ready to cut it down. And he’ll be justified in cutting it down when he dies. “Give it one more year,” the gardener says. “Just one more—and if it doesn’t produce fruit by next year, well, then by all means let’s cut it down. Throw it on the fire. Let it be destroyed.
We are living in a season of mercy. One more year, for some of us. Or worse: maybe one more month, one more week, one more day, one more hour. None of us knows. God knows. And God is patiently waiting for some of you to repent, to believe in Jesus, and to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
God is merciful to give us this time, right now. No future time is guaranteed. But time is running out. All we know for sure is that we have this moment. How will we use it?
Christians must learn to regularly stop and ask themselves: Am I living right now as if my beliefs were true?
— Kevin M. Watson (@kevinwatson) September 28, 2017
Last week, a professor from the Candler School of Theology—he wasn’t my professor; he joined the faculty after I graduated. I’m happy to report he’s a theologically conservative evangelical. But last week he tweeted something that moved me. He posted the following on Twitter: “Christians must learn to regularly stop and ask themselves: Am I living right now as if my beliefs were true?”
Am I living right now as if my beliefs were true? Am I living my Christian life as if I really believe it? Am I living my Christian life as if I really believe the gospel? If I really believe what God has revealed to us in his Word, am I living in a way that’s consistent with that?
We should all learn to ask ourselves that question!
All we know for sure is that we have this moment of time. How will we use it?